Most people can bear adversity; but if you wish to know what a man really is give him power. This is the supreme test.—Robert G. Ingersoll
Unless you happened to work at Vermont’s Ben and Jerry’s in 1985 when the 5 to 1 rule¹ was in effect, America’s corporations, unwittingly or not, promoted a type of culture that is “dog eat dog.” Under such merit-based systems, ambitious employees clock in long hours and rely on a variety of skills to climb the competitive corporate ladder to the highest tier of company leadership, where the best fruits of labor can be enjoyed.
Enron executives took this culture model and its fruits to an unprecedented level. For them, the culture wasn’t confined to activities in Enron’s trading floors and accounting offices; for this precious few, it became a way of life in which nothing was ever enough.
According to Frey & Rosin (2002), founder and Chairman Ken Lay’s lust for real estate manifested in four houses in Aspen. CEO Jeff Skilling’s thrill-seeking tendencies had him hiking the Rockies, scaling glaciers in Patagonia, off-roading in Australia, among other “bone rattling adventures.” Other top executives of Enron spoiled themselves with strip clubs, cars, boats, and horses². This precious few indulged on a level attainable to the rest of us only in our fantasies.
Enron’s top tier was made up of, quite simply, boys and their toys. Wealth comes with opportunities, and among them is the power to influence. With their extravagant lifestyles, Enron’s executives instilled an over-the-top culture rife with an obsession for making money. This resulted in cut-throat competition among employees.
Enron art collection promoted healthy company image
Over the course, concepts of quality and substance were abandoned in order to perpetuate the illusion that Enron was a healthy company if not the healthiest. Its CFO, Andrew Fastow, was right in line with keeping up appearances; in addition to nimble financial gymnastics, he encouraged an art collection representative of the perceived vision of Enron: contemporary, avant-garde, cutting edge, and superior.
Thus an art committee was established with a budget of $20 million. It comprised five members who were assigned the mission to travel the world and look for art that would position Enron at the top of worldwide collections. Each member of the committee brought significant expertise to the table, or at least a strong passion for all things art.
Said Barry Walker, a well-respected curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston,
They wanted an important collection. They were striving to be cutting edge and to represent the Enron culture–which at the time sounded like a good thing.
Lea Weingarten Fastow, wife of former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow, became head of the art committee. Lea’s interesting family background included her mother, Miriam Hagar Weingarten, who represented Israel in the 1958 Miss Universe Contest and subsequently won for Best Speech. This same Miriam was the first female in the Israeli military forces to cross the Suez Canal into Egypt, an accomplishment made possible by disguising herself as a male. (At the time, it was against the law for Israeli women to go to the front lines of combat.) Later married to a wealthy Texan named Jack Weingarten, Miriam gave birth to two girls, one being Lea.
Lea had a happy childhood of plenty, yet as a 9-year-old she was greatly upset when her parents divorced. She moved on to pursue a college education at Tufts University, where she met Andrew Fastow. After graduating from Tufts, Andrew and Lea each earned degrees from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. Thereafter, Andrew accepted a job offer from Enron–on the condition that Lea be offered a position as well.
While Andrew’s career took off, Lea paused hers to be a full-time mother to two sons. The couple shared a zeal for collecting art, which eventually brought Lea back into the fold at Enron and chairing its art committee. Her role involved traveling all over the world, looking for art with millions of dollars at her disposal. Privy to Enron’s less-than-honest ways, Lea engaged in fraud herself. Upon Enron’s scandalous collapse, Lea pleaded guilty to tax evasion, and spent one year in jail.
Upon her release, Lea temporarily pursued nursing before ultimately utilizing her expertise to start an art consulting business that is her vocation today. Lea’s husband was out of jail after six years and spends his time giving talks on corporate fraud and doing research for a law firm.
Other Art Committee Members
Jeff Shankman was among Enron’s top traders making a fortune. However, there was only so much Jeff could learn about natural gas, so he became well-versed in a subject that highly interested him–art history; hence, he gained a spot on the Enron Art Committee. Jeff’s contributions to the committee must have gone unnoticed for he was left out of the distributions of astronomical bonuses to traders while Enron was crumbling. Bitter about this, Jeff testified against Enron in several lawsuits and shared that Enron’s unofficial motto was, “Get as much as you can.”
Post-Enron, Mr. Shankman endured financial difficulties from unsuccessful business ventures that included a hedge fund and a cement business. All the while, Jeff’s dedication to art endured as he served as Trustee of the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston. He purchased a painting from a New York gallery and later deemed it a forgery. He blackmailed the gallery, which responded with a lawsuit.
Few people possess the wealth to survive lawsuits flying back and forth, and Mr. Shankman was one of them. He declared bankruptcy. One would think Mr. Shankman learned a thing or two from Enron’s debacle. Alas, he hid assets, and lied under oath about certain pieces of art valued at just under 1 million dollars. He testified that he transferred all art in his name to an entity called “1818 Art Partners Fund.” The truth was he maintained control of the art. His punishment was six months in jail and a fine.
Rifkin, former Director of Atlanta High Museum on the Enron Art Committee
Dr. Ned Rifkin was one of two art professionals on the committee (the other being the above-mentioned Barry Walker). Rifkin, former Director of Atlanta’s High Museum and Houston’s Menil Collection, among other positions, is perhaps most well-known for the successful Rings Exhibit during the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Rifkin’s one and only run in with the law was a ticket for letting his dog run unleashed on Two Mile Hollow Beach in the Hamptons, New York, for which he dutifully paid the fine (McMorrow, 2015). Rifkin currently teaches Cinema Studies at Purchase College of the State University of New York (SUNY).
Mike S. McConnell, former Head of Global Marketing at Enron, shared the other art committee members’ enthusiasm for art. It may be because of his integrity that he emerged from the Enron catastrophe unscathed. For inspiration, he credits a collection of affirmations, or quotes, that he puts in his pocket daily. In addition to the Enron Art Committee, McConnell founded Enron’s Vision and Values Committee. Quote McConnell,
At Enron, if we had held fast to our four values of respect, integrity, communication and excellence, we would still be a strong, innovative company today. I was a founding member of the Vision and Values Committee, and our goal was to indoctrinate those values and get everyone excited about living those principles at work. And, I would do it again today.
Unfortunately, making money was more important to many of McConnell’s co-workers than living by the company’s stated values. McConnell shares his enriching insight in a wonderful book entitled, Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should / Keys to a Successful Life. It is highly recommended reading, and several copies will be purchased for graduation gifts in the future for friends and family. The world would be a better place if everyone could read and live by the words of Mike S. McConnell.
Only $4 million had been spent by the art committee members when the mission was aborted. Below are a few items from the collection that had been purchased at the time of Enron’s epic collapse:
- Soft Light Switch for $590,000. Not to insult a piece of art, but how this price of this piece was justified is beyond me.
- Bower $766,000 wooden sculpture. It was eventually sold to Smithsonian for a price that broke even.
- Jack Pierson’s sculpture, “Stardust.”
Had this committee succeeded, Enron might have had quite a valuable contemporary art collection. It was not to be. As from Aesop in his fable, “Much wants more and loses all.”
Dog eat dog
marked by destructive or ruthless competition
- Ben and Jerry’s company model was unique in that the CEO’s salary was tied to the salaries of employees, where the highest-paid employee made no more than five times the lowest-paid one. The company was forced to abandon this model in 1994 when it proved too challenging to recruit a CEO to replace the retiring Ben Cohen (Dreifus, 1994).
- So impressive was a horse owned by an Enron executive that it played a role in Linda McCartney’s funeral in New York (Frey & Rosin, 2002).
Cohen, R. (2006). The Enron family philanthropies. Non Profit News | Nonprofit Quarterly. Retrieved from https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2006/06/21/the-enron-family-philanthropies/
Dreifus, C. (1994, Dec 18). Passing the scoop; Ben & Jerry. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1994/12/18/magazine/passing-the-scoop-ben-jerry.html
Ex-Enron executive indicted on bankruptcy charges. (2013). FBI. Retrieved from https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/houston/press-releases/2013/ex-enron-executive-indicted-on-bankruptcy-charges
Frey, J., & Rosin, H. (2002, Feb 25). Enron’s green acres. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://faculty.msb.edu/bodurthj/teaching/ENRON/Enron’s%20Green%20Acres.htm
Ingersoll, R. (1883, Apr 1). The exchange table, True greatness exemplified in Abraham Lincoln. Quote Investigator. Retrieved from https://quoteinvestigator.com/2016/04/14/adversity/#note-13450-4
Johnson, P. (2001). Menil Collection director Ned Rifkin resigns. Houston Chronicle. Retrieved from https://www.chron.com/entertainment/article/Menil-Collection-director-Ned-Rifkin-resigns-2056938.php
McMorrow, T. (2015, Jul 16). Off leash and facing fines. The East Hampton Star. Retrieved from https://easthamptonstar.com/Police/2015716/Leash-and-Facing-Fines
Murphy, B. (2002, Jul 29). Enron’s $20 million art spree assailed. Houston Chronicle. Retrieved from https://www.chron.com/business/enron/article/Enron-s-20-million-art-spree-assailed-2107326.php